The large rectangular solar panels that PSE&G has been installing on utility poles across North Jersey are not winning style points from residents and local officials, who call them hideous, an eyesore, even “ugly as hell.”
“I’m all in favor of solar energy. It’s a great technology,” said Wyckoff Township Committeeman Brian Scanlan. “That said, this project is an example of good intentions going awry.”
Scanlan is concerned about the look of the 3-foot-by-5-foot panels perched on poles “especially where you have a neighborhood with front yards that are relatively small.”
Ridgewood Deputy Mayor Tom Riche was more blunt, calling the panels “hideous.”
“It’s just horrible,” he said.
PSE&G has installed 82,000 solar panels statewide since 2009 as part of a project to install at least 180,000 panels in a $515 million program by 2012. The project also includes installations at PSE&G facilities, schools, municipal buildings and private property in Urban Enterprise Zones.
The project will double the state’s solar capacity. When up and running, the array of 180,000 panels will provide 40 million watts of power, enough to supply electricity to 6,600 homes, said Al Matos, PSE&G’s vice president of Renewable and Energy Solutions.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Matos said. He said the utility has received mostly compliments on the program.
“In general, when we explain the benefits – that our customers are getting a mix of fuels, including solar – they are proud to have the panels in their neighborhood,” Matos said. “The program is designed to help make us more independent of oil.”
If a homeowner calls to voice displeasure with a solar panel, “we listen, we take a look, but to be fair, generally we will leave it there,” he said. “To give preferential treatment to one customer over another is not fair.”
John Moran of Fair Lawn turned onto Fifth Street recently and did a double take. There were eight new solar panels on his short block. They hadn’t been there that morning.
“There was no notice, no warning. We’re all taking about them,” Moran said of his neighbors. “Everyone is in full agreement that they’re ugly. They’re an eyesore.”
The solar panels are all on the same side of the street, many on consecutive utility poles. Residents are puzzled about why the panels are “crammed” onto their block when there are none on other streets, despite similar tree and shade conditions.
“Solar is a good idea, but this was very poor planning by PSE&G,” Moran said. “They should have put them by borough buildings or industrial areas.”
In Westwood, Mayor John Birkner and council President Robert Miller met with PSE&G officials this month after numerous complaints from residents. They got the utility to halt installations.
Miller said the borough supports the use of renewable energy sources, but was concerned the panels were placed without any consideration as to how they would affect the residents.
“All we are asking them is to let our residents be a factor, not the ultimate, but a factor,” Miller said. “Their objective is solid. We are supportive of it. Maybe it’s their pole, but it’s our town.”
PSE&G is evaluating if there are other areas in Westwood where panels can be installed, said Francis Sullivan, a company spokesman. “If there are appropriate poles, we will resume installations after answering the town’s questions,” he said.
Matos said that until the project reached North Jersey, PSE&G had not had any requests from towns to halt the work. But recently, work was temporarily stopped in several Bergen County communities, including Ho-Ho-Kus, Waldwick, Wyckoff and Ridgewood, until the utility could meet with town officials, he said.
Besides the look of the panels, local officials have objected to the way they are being installed with little or no notice. Some have asked whether PSE&G has the right to place the panels on the poles, arguing that municipalities own the right of way between street and sidewalk, where most poles are located.
Town officials also worry about liability if a panel breaks or ice falls off them onto pedestrians. In Ridgewood, officials are concerned that the panels will interfere with the low-voltage cables that run along the utility poles to power village fire box alarms as well as fire alarms for Ridgewood High School and The Valley Hospital. “That would be a huge public safety issue,” Riche said.
Matos said the safety and liability concerns are unfounded. “The liability is not the town’s issue; it’s PSE&G’s issue,” he said. He said little snow or ice accumulates on the panels, which are installed at a 30-degree tilt, and when snow does accumulate, the warmth generated by the panels melts it.
As for disruption to the emergency fire box systems, he said there is no interference.
Matos also said PSE&G has a legal right to put the panels on utility poles – they own them.
“The applicable law provides a clear definition that we can use the right of way to install equipment related to both the supply and distribution of electricity,” he said.
PSE&G customers are billed 10 cents a month to help fund the solar panel project, which also receives federal tax credits and state energy credits earned by producing solar power.
PSE&G considered smaller panels, but that would have required putting them on more utility poles. The company has about 800,000 utility poles in its service area, and only about 200,000 meet the criteria needed for installing the panels, Matos said.
The utility poles chosen for the panels must have a clear southern or southwest exposure with a 120-volt line attached to it so the panel can be hooked directly into the grid. The pole can’t be cluttered with other hardware, such as telephone or cable TV equipment. The panels must be installed a minimum of 15 feet off the ground to comply with safety codes. The solar energy goes directly to the homes near the panel, Matos said.
Many local officials said they understand the need to reduce the reliance on carbon-based energy. In fact, Scanlan said Wyckoff could talk with PSE&G about other locations for panels, such as the roofs of public buildings.
In Ridgewood, Riche said the park-and-ride facility on Route 17 might be a good spot, as well as the right of way for high-voltage lines that runs through the village.
Westwood resident Neil Volant believes there are enough poles along highways and in commercial areas for the panels.
Volant wants PSE&G to remove the panels from residential neighborhoods.
“I don’t think our neighborhoods should become power generating stations,” he said. “They have a negative effect on property values, a negative effect on quality of life. You can’t miss them.
“It’s not just my back yard,” he said. “I don’t want them in Ridgewood’s back yard. I don’t want them in Edison’s back yard. I don’t want them in anybody’s front yard. They just don’t belong in anybody’s residential neighborhood.”
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